Sunday, February 7, 2010

You've gotta look it in the eyes and say that I don't believe.

It began innocently and curiously enough last night when I read a twitter post from Sarah Lipstate, the "sound artist" behind the Noveller project (about whom I really ought to write one of these days):

RIP Gowns. Listening to their final track release:

I had heard of Gowns in passing before, but had never explored their music. Curiosity piqued, I clicked through and listened. What happened next is perhaps somewhat predictable. Within the hour, I had a digital copy of their debut (and apparently only) album, Red State.

I should back up here and talk briefly about the band. At its core, Gowns was a three-piece band, a collaboration between singer/guitarist Erika Anderson (formerly of Amps for Christ), singer/programmer/viola player Ezra Buchla (formerly of west coast noise-rock institution the Mae Shi), and drummer Corey Fogel, with additional member occasionally joining for live performances. On the album, this core trio was also assisted by Carla Bozulich, formerly of the Geraldine Fibbers and currently of Evangelista. Obviously, with this pedigree and this lineup of instruments, Gowns were a special and unique creature.

Their reputation lies mostly in their prowess and ferocity as a live act, a spectacle of catharsis that was apparently difficult to match, let alone top. While I unfortunately missed out on that experience, you can hear the intensity that would lend itself to so singular a performance style. From the looks of things, it was that intensity that, unfortunately, led to their premature demise.

Musically, their debut album presents a juxtaposition of American folk music structure with dark electronic atmospherics that at times resemble some of the more experimental moments from Radiohead's Kid A/Amnesiac period, John Cale viola drones, and Xiu Xiu-esque whisper-to-a-scream vocal dynamics that leaves the listener feeling uncomfortable and even a tad voyeuristic. Admittedly, this is not feel-good music by any stretch, but there is an eerie feeling of intimacy embedded with the catharsis that, while not for everyone, is rewarding for listeners that are able to appreciate it.

According to a post on Erika's blog, as of January 3, the band were busy mixing the second album, a time-consuming, work-intensive, tedious, and exacting process that the band went through collectively, without outsourcing:

We typically mix everything ourselves, and that’s like hand stitching. You know how you can listen to Red State over and over again? That took a long time. I want to make things that wear well, and a lot of that is really obsessive, tasteful mixing…

Within 4 weeks, apparently, Gowns were an entity that existed firmly in the past. In its wake, the band left one last missive, a 17-minute behemoth of a track called "Stand and Encounter" that dials down the folk and dials up the post-rock, sounding at times like Mogwai, Sonic Youth, and the Velvet Underground jamming with the Swans. Again, it's not for everyone, but it's free to try, both in a streaming clip and as a free download of its full 17-minute glory. It now stands as the only artifact of a sophomore album what will presumably never be realized, and the finality of Erika's words on the matter are both gratifying and heartbreaking:

We were tapping into some very raw emotions, and I’m ultimately proud of the risks we took. In spite of anything else, I feel like we were honest, and I feel like we were brave.

I’m also proud of the sounds we created, as though the combination of our talents created something that was rare and unique.

-Before this we were just finishing work on a piece for our next record, and I think in many ways it’s one of the best things we’ve done. At 17 minutes long, it’s a good representation of everyone doing the best of what they do best: it’s got Corey’s frenetic yet graceful drum patterns, Ezra’s swelling viola drones, a rhythmic and powerful guitar line, and a vocal and lyrical style that is at once direct and oblique.

-I’m posting it here as a free download, because I know people were anxious to hear something new from us, and I know we had kept them waiting far too long. I’d like to think of this as our final release.

I’m sorry we couldn’t keep it together.

Although it is sad that the band burnt out so quickly, the cliché is true: they also burned brightly. This is intensely moving music for those that can appreciate it, and ultimately if they had not been the kind of band to burn itself out so quickly, the recorded legacy they left behind would not be as special as it is. I feel lucky to have found out about them, however late, and I hope you check them out to. In addition to Red State and this final track, Gowns leaves behind a self-distributed EP, recently reissued on vinyl, and a limited edition live session on LP called Broken Bones. Both are available in limited quantities directly from Erika, and Red State can be purchased in CD or MP3 format from Erika also has a new, more traditionally folk-inflected project, Some Dark Holler, in the works. You can listen to two songs from the project at her website.

MP3: Gowns - "Stand and Encounter"
Erika Anderson/Gowns website

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